By Frank Gruber
For the next month Santa Monica residents and officials will be involved in deciding something that will be important for a long time: the route the Expo light rail line will take through Santa Monica. The decision will relate less to transportation itself than it will to the meaning of transportation and its impact in the urban fabric.
While Expo will follow the old railroad right of way that runs along Exposition Boulevard into Santa Monica (a right of way that dates back to the railroad Sen. John Percival Jones built in 1875 when he and his partners founded the city), there are two routes being considered once the line gets past Bergamot Station.
The route planners first settled on some years ago was to run the trains down the median of Olympic Boulevard, and then over Lincoln Boulevard and the freeway off ramps by means of a flyover that would begin rising around Euclid. The line's terminus would be a station elevated 35 feet above ground at Fourth and Colorado.
About two years ago the City of Santa Monica started to have doubts about this plan. As I have written before (10-29-2007 The Return of Railroad Avenue) during the planning process for the land use and circulation element updates consultant Robert Odermatt, who had been involved in the planning for light rail systems in San Jose and Portland, pointed out that the Olympic route would have negative impacts because of the flyover.
Mr. Odermatt suggested running the line along the old right of way until about Seventeenth Street, and then switching it to Colorado Avenue, to run at grade to its terminus at Fourth Street. This route would have the added advantage of saving the beloved coral trees on the median of Olympic.
The City Council in October 2007 appropriated $300,000 to pay for the Expo Construction Authority to include a study of the Colorado Avenue route in the environmental impact report the authority was preparing for Phase 2 of the line (from Culver City to Santa Monica). The authority released the EIR on Jan. 28, which has triggered a 45-day period for receiving comments. The authority expects the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) to make decisions about the routes this year, and the authority expects to break ground on Phase 2 in 2010 (about the time Phase 1 begins operating).
The Santa Monica Planning Commission has already been discussing the route (and has recommended Colorado Avenue), but starting tomorrow night, when the City Council will hold a study session on the plan, the discussion will go much more public. The City's planning department will host a community workshop Feb. 17 and the Expo authority will hold, in Santa Monica on Feb. 18, the first of three hearings to gather comments to the EIR.
Then on Mar. 3, the City Council is expected to make its recommendations. Because there is not much difference between the two Santa Monica routes when it comes to costs, environmental impact, or predicted ridership, the authority and Metro should defer to the City Council's recommendation, since the question is a local urban design issue more than anything else.
So it's a good time to pay attention to what's going on.
Most of the attention in the region, however, will focus on whether to run the line along the old Exposition right of way along the southern edges of the Rancho Park and Cheviot Hills neighborhoods, or to take an alternate route along Venice and Sepulveda Boulevards. Some residents of Rancho Park and Cheviot Hills have opposed returning rail traffic to the right of way, and in response to their complaints the authority studied the alternate route.
The EIR, however, delivers devastating blows to the Venice/Sepulveda route; it turns out that building along the boulevards would require about 250 people to lose their homes. It's hard to compare the inconveniences residents of Rancho Park and Cheviot Hills might experience to the eviction of 250 people. The Venice/Sepulveda route would also cost about 50 percent more and add more than five minutes to running times.
In Santa Monica neither the Olympic nor the Colorado route passes through a neighborhood, and although some businesses may have issues, the decision will not be fraught with as much
emotion as the Cheviot Hills battle or other decisions regarding where to build grade separations (such as the dispute affecting Expo Phase 1 regarding the crossing near Dorsey High School).
The EIR does indicate that the Colorado route adds two minutes to travel time, but at a press conference last week a consultant from the firm that prepared the EIR said that that computation was made without factoring in the likelihood that trains on the Colorado route would benefit from synchronized traffic lights.
What Santa Monica has is not just the chance to fine-tune a plan, but an opportunity to strike a blow for good urbanism.
No schematic drawings in an EIR can realistically depict just how ugly an elevated line is, or how ugly it gets when it's attracted its fair share of graffiti and litter underneath.
(There are photographs, however, of such structures in the staff report for tomorrow night's City Council meeting that give the idea.)
Meanwhile the world is full of vibrant cities with train tracks running down the middle of streets.
There are other issues that the City and residents will be paying attention to. The authority plans to locate a maintenance yard for the line on what is now the Verizon property on Exposition east of Stewart. This is land that under the developing LUCE plans was hoped to become a mixed-use neighborhood near Bergamot Station. The authority is saying that there are no alternate sites elsewhere along the line, but it's likely that City Council will have questions about that.
There is also the question of the dedicated bikeway that cyclists want to have built the length of the line. Because the bikeway would be paid for with federal funds (Expo will be built with local money only), plans for the bikeway will take longer to approve. For that reason the authority has severed planning for the bikeway from Expo, leaving the bikeway to the cities of Santa Monica and Los Angeles. Yet at the same time there are questions at this stage about how to route the bikeway -- particularly with regard to how to get it around or through the maintenance facility.
Also relating to bikes, the City should make sure that the stations in Santa Monica are designed with room to provide for storage of bikes in a bike-borrowing system like those in cities such as Paris and Barcelona.
But the main thing is -- bring back the trains. Sen. Jones would be happy. In his day Colorado Avenue was called Railroad Avenue. Might we bring back the name?
An important meeting will take place tonight at the Santa Monica Main Library about the ongoing issue of special education in the School District. The PTA, the School District, the Malibu Special Education Foundation, and the Special Education District Advisory Committee are co-sponsoring a town hall meeting at which the "working group" of 16 staff members and parents charged with analyzing the District's special education program and "culture" will disclose the recommendations it has drafted for the district. Here are the meeting details:
Special Education in the School District Meeting
Monday, February 9th
6:15pm - 8:00pm
Santa Monica Main Library
601 Santa Monica Blvd.)
Here is the schedule for meetings in Santa Monica regarding the Expo Phase 2 EIR:
Tues., Feb. 10, City Council Study Session, 6:45 p.m., at City Hall.
Tues., Feb. 17, Community Workshop, 7:00 p.m., at the Civic Auditorium, East Wing.
Weds. Feb. 18, Expo Authority public hearing to gather comments to EIR, 5:00 - 8:00 p.m., at Santa Monica High School.
Tues., Mar. 3, City Council meeting to recommend a route preference and make other comments to the EIR.